Teaching, Learning, and Other Uses for Wikis in Academia
All Users Are Not Necessarily
By Jude Higdon
The Center for Scholarly Technology
University of Southern California
Like many academic technology groups at campuses around the country, the Center
for Scholarly Technology (CST) at USC has been wrestling with how to implement
various types of social software, such as blogs and wikis, in the classroom.
Over the past few years we have found some very good uses for blogs, including
peer-reviewed journaling, Just-in-Time Teaching (Novak, et al, 1999), and meta-cognitive
reflective practice. While we hit a few stumbling blocks early on, we seemed
to be coming to some level of sophistication and adoption with the use of blogs
as tools for enhancing teaching and learning as we entered into the 2005-2006
Use of wikis in the classroom has proved more elusive. While we never like
to advocate the use of technology as an end of itself, our group saw great potential
in the affordances of the wiki for teaching and learning. Students co-constructing
meaning in a democratized digital space has a certain social constructivist
(Bandura, 1976) elegance. And yet we struggled to impart this sense of potential
to our faculty collaborators. By and large, people didn't seem ready for the
freewheeling, uncontrolled wiki environment.
As tends to be the case when we find that our ideas aren't taking root among
our faculty, we decided to take a step back this fall and listen hard to find
out what needs we could meet, rather than trying to drum up business for a solution
to a problem that may not have existed. It took us re-conceptualizing our idealized
notion of how a wiki could be useful to our faculty (and to our students), but
in the end we did, indeed find regularly articulated needs that the wikis could
The first step in this process was to determine what, in essence, a wiki truly
was. While the mythology of wikis tends to center around the egalitarianism
of the tool, as we looked closer we came to believe that that wasn't its defining
feature. At its core, a wiki is a Web site that is fully editable from a Web
browser. If you have that, you have a wiki; if you don't, you don't. This means
that you must be able to add, edit, and delete pages, text, and hyperlinks right
The wiki shares all of the non-linear affordances of standard Web sites. In
this way, it is distinguishable from other types of social software, such as
blogs, which are designed around the post, a timely entry that appears linearly,
in reverse chronological order.
The social software purists out there are probably gnashing their teeth right
about now, but I stand by this assertion. While there are some situations in
which a democratized environment could work quite well, it is also the case
that in some situations you want to limit some members' abilities to add, edit,
and delete content from your wiki space, but still give them some rights in
the space. In so doing, I don't think you've violated the tool, or made the
wiki somehow not a wiki.
To be frank, we found the democratized framing of the
wiki to be unduly constraining; many of our faculty collaborators had extremely
thoughtful projects that required varying levels of collaborative engagement
among the wiki members that wouldn't have worked if everyone had full edit privileges.
It was with this orientation, and through a series of pilot projects with various
faculty members, students, and research groups in the Fall semester of 2005,
that the CST identified the following six general approaches for how wikis could
be implemented around campus.
Approach 1: Student Journaling
Instructors want students to journal for a number of reasons: to demonstrate
writing proficiency, to expose understanding (and misunderstanding) of conceptual
knowledge, to establish the habit of regular reflection, and to engage in meta-cognitive
reflection, to name a few. The wiki allows students to journal for their own
benefit, or for peer or instructor review.
Approach 2: Personal Portfolios
By enabling students to collect and organize digital assets such as course notes,
images, Web resources, and PowerPoint slides, the wiki can help learners to
make connections between and among those assets.
Approach 3: Collaborative Knowledge Base
In the more classic use of the wiki, groups can use the environment to create
a shared knowledge base of information. This can be used to allow students to
develop a project in small groups, to work on a small piece of a larger class
project, or even to have students themselves create and maintain the course
Approach 4: Research Coordination and Collaboration
The wiki allows multiple collaborators who are separated by physical space to
collect ideas, papers, timelines, documents, datasets, and study results into
a collective digital space. Researchers can also use the space to store draft
files for their papers: MS Word, LaTEX, or even writing directly into the Web
pages of the wiki. Additionally, funders and junior researchers can be given
"read only" access to all or certain parts of the space.
Approach 5: Curricular and Cross-Disciplinary Coordination
As departments become increasingly creative in their efforts to accommodate
more students in a distributed/blended learning environment, curricular coordination
among faculty and T.A.s gets increasingly important. The wiki allows for departmental
personnel, instructors, and teaching assistants to organize common course assets,
such as syllabi, office hours, and assessments, without having an endless email
chain or difficult to schedule face-to-face meetings.
Use Case 6: Conference and Colloquia Web Site/Coordination
Many departments, schools, and scholarly centers at the university have academic
conferences and colloquia. By allowing presenters and attendees access to add
and edit content, the conference wiki can serve as a resource before, during,
and after the event itself. The wiki can also be used by conference administrators
as a means of organizing the event.
Of course, there are many other ways to use the wiki in an academic setting,
but these represent the general categories of use that we've begun to see emerge
on our campus.
There are also features that I haven't addressed here that any
wiki worth its salt will have. Syndication via RSS, for instance, is a major
dimension of all social software, including wikis. As we look to the emerging
uses of social software for teaching and learning, one of our big challenges
will be to figure out how to leverage the affordances of syndication without
compromising security of sensitive information. But we're taking one thing at
a time. For now, by relaxing our idealized notion of what a wiki should be (and
the implied pedagogies therewith), and by listening hard to our collaborators,
we found a host of great uses for the tool that had before proved elusive to
Bandura, Albert (1976). Social Learning Theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice
Novak, Gregor, Gavrin, Andrew, Christian, Wolfgang, and Patterson, Evelyn (1999).
Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Jude Higdon can be reached via email at